A Kabbalistic Approach to Spiritual Growth: Part 36 – Self-Criticism (Part A)

The effectiveness of an educator or spiritual advisor mirrors the extent of his own self reflection and self-criticism. This “knowledge of self” brings depth and substance to his teaching and lends integrity to his advice. The educator who daily reviews the details of his life, and corrects his behavior accordingly, will acquire the wisdom and humility to penetrate directly into the heart of his students; and it is a key criterion of spiritual education that it touch the heart as well as the mind. From such a teacher, the student learns to translate theory into action.

A story will illustrate this point. The Rebbe Tzemach Tzedek, the 19th century Hassidic Master, would periodically travel through the villages of White Russia with a small band of his students. They would stay a few days in each town and the Rebbe would spend the entire time seeing people one by one–answering questions, counseling, and giving blessings in addition to his teachings. His visits were a time of excitement and rejoicing. But one afternoon the Tzemach Tzedek excused himself from his routine and retired to his quarters. His students assumed that he was taking a nap and expected that he would return in an hour or so.

But after a much longer time passed, they became concerned and two of them went to see if there was any problem. As they approached the door, they heard him crying and reciting Psalms. The two reported what they had seen to the other students as well as the people in the waiting room, and they all began to say Psalms in support of the Rebbe.

After a while, the two returned to the Rebbe’s room, and found him reciting the afternoon prayers. But they noticed that he was adding the special insertions that are normally recited during the Ten Days of Awe between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the time when the Jewish people are particularly involved in repentance. Everyone was frightened, concerned, and curious.

Later that evening, in the synagogue, the Rebbe spoke on the power of tears, Torah, and Psalms to cleanse the soul of its impurities. He rested the entire next day and only returned to receiving visitors on the day following.

Not knowing what to make of any of this, the students finally asked the Tzemach Tzedek what had happened. A wave of sadness passed across the Rebbe’s face, but he regained his composure and explained:

When a person comes to me seeking advice for his problems, I find that subtle point in myself that exactly mirrors the blemish of his soul, and from that place of my own repentance, I suggest a solution. On that day, a person came with a story, and I was very disturbed by his words. Furthermore, I couldn’t find the subtle point of identification within myself. This was frightening because it meant that the fault was present but hidden in the subconscious depths of my heart, in which case its influence was not under my control. For this reason I immediately began to pray to bring this flaw out from a state of hiddeness, into a state of conscious awareness, and thereby place it under my control.”

This story is a lesson for all of us. Everyone assumes the role of educator sometime in life–whether in relation to friends seeking advice, parenting, marriage, or career; and everyone is responsible for drawing the good out of each of those situations. Similarly, the Torah obligates us to speak up when we see someone, who should know better, acting in violation of God’s law. And here as well, the obligation is to be effective. It is not sufficient to simply inform others of their error, rather we must communicate in such a way that they will want to receive the information and alter their behavior accordingly. This ability to touch the hearts of others is only possible if we follow the example of the Tzemach Tzedek, and relate to every imperfection we see outside ourselves as a mirror of an identical flaw within us.

Practically, this means that a particular period of time each day  must be put aside for personality inventory, where we reflect upon at least two things: first we should review our day, examining our thoughts and behavior with an eye toward improving them; secondly, wherever we finds ourselves critical of, or irritated by, someone else, we should reflect upon the fact that our very reaction actually provides us with information about ourselves. We identify this information by naming the fault we see in the other person, and then, for the moment, assuming that it applies to us as well, though perhaps on a subtler and more hidden level. Next–and this is the hard part–we should try to verify this premise with concrete examples from our own behavior. Then during the day, when we catch ourselves judging the other person, we should immediately remember our own failings in that area, find instances during that very day or week where we displayed the same negative trait (even if no one saw), and resolve to correct the problem.

Leave A Comment